If someone were ever to organise a contest to find the most important annual exhibition in Britain, I think my vote would go to New Contemporaries. Certainly, it would be in my top two, with only the Turner prize as serious competition. The show’s guiding idea is such a simple one: every year, it selects the most vigorous students graduating from our art schools and displays their wares. It therefore performs two valuable functions. First, it talent-spots for the nation and sieves out the best artistic hopefuls heading into the art world proper. Second, it illuminates the tastes and thought processes of the student mind, thereby allowing us oldies to keep up with our times. If you get New Contemporaries, you get the zeitgeist.
That, at least, is the theory. Where it all starts to fray (I was going to write “go wrong”, but that would have been what a grumpy old man would have written; and, having just gorged myself on fresh student blood at the latest New Contemporaries, I am not, temporarily, one of those) is in the fraught transfer from plan to execution. The show is chosen each year by a different group of selectors. Occasionally, they are an insightful bunch, this year being a good example. Often, they are not. And a bad New Contemporaries is bad in particularly fresh and virulent ways.
Also unfortunate is the show’s annoying locational disarray. When I started writing about it, in the 1980s, it popped up annually at the ICA – surely the perfect venue. These days, however, it tiptoes around provincial Britain and no longer has an influ-ential London home. When the Liverpool Biennial is on, New Contemporaries debuts there. In nonbiennial years, such as this one, it bounces about the regions looking for a floor to crash on. This nomadic uncertainty robs the show of much of its sense of event.
I caught up with it at the Cornerhouse, in Manchester, a cultural centre with the air of a loft conversion, because it has been created out of a former furniture store and what I remember (from my student days in Manchester) as a particularly dingy X-rated cinema called the Tatler. The knocking-together of furniture store and fleapit has resulted in a higgledy-piggledy venue with lots of irregular spaces piled on top of each other. As you career about the building seeking out 37 young artists from (predictably) Goldsmiths College or (less predictably) Dun-can of Jordanstone College of Art, in Dundee, you find yourself bouncing between videos, paintings, photographs, bits of installation, floor sculptures, prints and naughty word-pieces scrawled directly onto the gallery walls.
Keeping up with New Contemporaries 2007 is, therefore, a bit of an adventure.
As usual, the trick is to discern shapes in the chaos. I plopped out at the other end of the ghost train having noticed three reasonably coherent tendencies. The first, and most welcome, is a new taste for brevity. The video pieces in particular were mercifully short. Laurie Hill’s creepy cartoon about a lost island kingdom patrolled by giant scorpions was written by the artist when he was 12, and succeeds in condensing the story lines of various voyages by Captain Pug-wash and the first two runs of Lost into just nine minutes. Mary Ferguson’s amusing addition of dancing bunnies to the thoughts of Stephen Hawking lasts barely three minutes. The best of the lot, Jason Nelson’s touching combination of cartoon locations and live-action Scottish social tragedy, needs only 90 seconds to achieve its bitter laughs.
What a relief to get away from the nocturnal grimness of the two-hour art-school video. We’re surely witnessing here the impact on art of YouTube aesthetics. These web-savvy art-school back-rowists have been taught not to outstay their welcome. Everything has got quicker and funnier. Ponderous slo-mo production values have given way to poppy low-tech silliness.
The next quality some con-tributors seem to share is grunginess: an appetite for unglamorous materials and scruffy sights. Andrew Mealor’s rickety coffin, leaning against a wall, looks as if it was banged together in a couple of minutes from some bits of four-by-two found in his yard. Ian Larson’s massively grubby human torso appears to portray a one-legged down-and-out whose matted pubic hair is sticking out from a soiled pair of Calvin Kleins. Yohei Yashi manages to be brief and grungy in the same short breath, with a nice visual gag in which a television surrounded by rubbish bags seems to show us a mouse scuttling about the corner of the room. In fact, the mouse is a small model hidden around the back of the rubbish bags and beamed live into the gallery via a webcam.
A decade or so ago, the adventurous collector Charles Saatchi claimed to have discovered a new art movement centred on London’s East End, which he christened New Neurotic Realism, and which seemed to share this same taste for skip materials and squalor.
The pompous name sat uneasily on sculptures made of cardboard and sprawling installations of junk. But, as usual, Saatchi had noticed something important: that art was favouring grubby materials and squalid spectacles not because artists were poor and could afford only the contents of a skip, but because deliberate grunginess is a statement of intent. Fiona Mackay’s scarily childish paintings, or Rhys Coren’s barely literate poem about the selectors (scrawled on the wall of the house across the road from the Cornerhouse!), are examples of grunginess attempting to do to the modern world what rottweilers do to the legs of burglars.
Which brings us to the most plangent of the show’s discernible themes: betrayal. Many of these young artists seem to be accusing their elders of letting them down. At its most obvious, the accusations concern the spoiling of the environment. Hill’s lost-paradise cartoon has at its centre the rediscovery of a dodo that is unceremoniously blown up when the island is deemed surplus to requirements. Gemma Pardo’s Congo 1880 appears to be a moody natural-history film set on the ocean’s edge, until the incoming fog begins to solidify into the looming silhouette of a power station. The sense of betrayal carries on across various social boundaries, with, for instance, Janine McLellan’s brightly knitted dolls, all of which sport the staring features of an unmistakable Gary Glitter.
The betrayal of the young is matched by the betrayal of the old in Penny Klepusze-wska’s sad portrait of a war veteran posing at his door with his Zimmer frame, his chest covered in medals, his face covered in sadness. Margot Hill’s video diary of poor old Les Brown’s last useless day at work keeps up the remembrance of the old mounted here, so unexpectedly, by the young.